#1 NYT bestselling author Linda Lael Miller

Once a Rancher

The Carsons of Mustang Creek: three men who embody the West and define what it means to be a rancher, a cowboy and a hero in this brand-new series from the queen of Western romance.

Slater Carson might be a businessman by trade, but he’s a cowboy at heart—and he knows the value of a hard day’s work under the hot Wyoming sun. So when he sees troubled teen Ryder heading down a dangerous path, he offers the boy a job on the ranch he shares with his two younger brothers. And since Ryder’s temporary guardian is the gorgeous new resort manager, Grace Emery, Slater figures it can’t hurt to keep a closer eye on her as well…

Grace Emery doesn’t have time for romance. Between settling in to her new job and caring for her ex-husband’s rebellious son, her attraction to larger-than-life Slater is a distraction she can’t afford. But when the past catches up to her in Mustang Creek, she’ll discover just how far Slater will go to protect what matters most—and that love is always worth fighting for.

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ONCE A RANCHER
By Linda Lael Miller
April 2016 HQN Books

CHAPTER ONE

              Slater Carson was bone-tired, as he was after every film wrapped, but it was the best kind of fatigue—part pride and satisfaction in a job well-done, part relief, part “bring it,” that anticipatory quiver in the pit of his stomach that would lead him to the next project, and the one after that.

This latest film had been set in a particularly remote area, emphasizing how the Homestead Act had impacted the development not only of the American West, but also the country as a whole. It had been his most ambitious effort to date. The sheer scope was truly epic, and as he watched the uncut footage on his computer monitor, he knew.

160 Acres was going to touch a nerve.

Yep, this one would definitely hit home with the viewers, new and old.

His previous effort, a miniseries on the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, had won prizes and garnered great reviews, and he’d sold the rights to one of the media giants for a shitload of money. Like Lincoln County, 160 Acres was good, solid work. The researchers, camera operators and other professionals he worked with were the top people in the business, as committed to the film as he was.

And that was saying something.

No doubt about it, the team had done a stellar job the last time around, but this—well, this was the best yet. A virtual work of art, if he did say so himself.

“Boss?”

Slater leaned back in his desk chair and clicked the pause button. “Hey, Nate.” He greeted his friend and personal assistant.

“What do you need?”

Like Slater, Nate Wheaton had just gotten back from the film site, where he’d taken care of a thousand details, and it was a safe bet that the man was every bit as tired as he looked. Short, blond, energetic and not more than twenty years old, Nate was a dynamo; the production had come together almost seamlessly, in large part because of his talent, persistence and steel-trap brain.

“Um,” Nate murmured, visibly unplugging, shifting gears. He was moving into off-duty mode, and God knew he’d earned it.

“There’s someone to see you.” He inclined his head in the direction of the outer office, rubbed the back of his neck and let out an exasperated sigh. “The lady insists she needs to talk to you and only you. I tried to get her to make an appointment, but she says it has to be now.”

Slater suppressed a sigh of his own. “It’s ten o’clock at night.”

“I’ve actually pointed that out,” Nate said, briefly consulting his phone. “It’s five after, to be exact.” Like Slater himself, Nate believed in exactness, which was at once a blessing and a curse. “She claims it can’t possibly wait until morning, whatever it is. But if I hadn’t been walking into the kitchen I wouldn’t have heard the knock.”

“How’d she even find me?” The crew had flown in late, driven out to the vineyard/ranch, and Slater had figured that no one, other than his family, knew he was in town. Or out of town. Whatever qualified as far as the ranch was concerned.

Nate looked glumly resigned. “I have no idea. She refused to say. I’m going to bed. If you need anything else, come and wake me, but bring a sledgehammer, because I’d probably sleep through anything less.” A pause, another sigh, deeper and wearier than the last. “That was quite the shoot.”

The understatement of the day.

Slater drew on the last dregs of his energy, shoved a hand through his hair and said, “Well, point her in this direction, if you don’t mind, and then get yourself some shut-eye.”

He supposed he sounded normal, but on the inside, he was drained. He’d given everything he had to 160, and then some, and there was no hope of charging his batteries. He’d blown through the last of his physical resources hours ago.

Resentment at the intrusion sent a tremor though his famous equanimity; he was used to dealing with problems on the job—ranging from pesky all the way to apocalyptic—but at home, damn it, he expected to be left alone. He needed rest, downtime, a chance to regroup, and the home place was where he did those things.

One of his younger brothers ran the Carson ranch, and the other managed the vineyard and winery. The arrangement worked out pretty well. Everyone had his own role to play, and the sprawling mansion was big enough, even for three competitive males to live in relative peace. Especially since he, Slater, was gone half the time, anyway.

“Will do.” Nate left the study, and a few minutes later the door opened.

Before Slater could make the mental leap from one moment to the next, a woman—qu8ite possibly the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—stormed across the threshold, dragging a teenage boy by the arm.

She was a redhead, with the kind of body that would resurrect a dead man, never mind a tired one.

And Slater had a fondness for redheads; he’d dated a lot of them over the years. This one was all sizzle, and her riot of coppery curls, bouncing around her straight indignant shoulders, seemed to blaze in the dim light.

It took him a moment, but he finally recovered and clambered to his feet. “I’m Slater Carson. Can I help you?”

This visitor, whoever she was, had his full attention.

Fascinating.

The redhead poked the kid, who was taller than she was by at least six inches, and she did it none too gently. The boy flinched; he was lanky, clad in a Seahawks T-shirt, baggy jeans and half-laced shoes. He looked bewildered, ready to bolt.

“Start talking, Buster,” the redhead ordered, glowering up at the kid. “And no excuses.” She shook her head. “I’m being nice here,” she said when the teenager didn’t speak. “Your father would kick you into the next county.”

Just his luck, Slater thought, with a strange, nostalgic detachment. She was married.

While he waited for the next development, he let his eyes trail over the goddess, over a sundress with thin straps on shapely shoulders, a mid-thigh skirt and silky pale skin. She was one of the rare Titian-types who didn’t have freckles, although Slater wouldn’t be opposed to finding out if there might be a few tucked away out of sight. White sandals with a small heel finished off the ensemble, and all that glorious hair was loose and flowing down her back.

The kid, probably around fourteen, cleared his throat. He stepped forward and laid one of the magnetic panels from the company’s production truck on the desk.

Slater, caught up in the unfolding drama, hadn’t noticed the sign until then.

Interesting.

“I’m sorry,” the boy gulped, clearly miserable and, at the same time, a little defiant. “I took this.” He looked sidelong at the woman beside him, visibly considered giving her some lip and just as visibly reconsidered. Smart kid. “I thought it was pretty cool,” he explained, all knees and elbows and youthful angst. Color climbed his neck and burned in his face. “I know it was wrong, okay? Stealing is stealing, and my stepmother’s ready to cuff me and haul me off to jail, so if that’s what you want, too, Mister, go for it.”

Stepmother?

Slater was still rather dazed, as though he’d stepped off a wild carnival ride before it was finished with its whole slew of loop-do-loops.

“His father and I are divorced.” She said it curtly, evidently reading Slater’s expression.

Well, Slater reflected, that was cause for encouragement. She did look young to be the kid’s mother. And now that he thought about it, the boy didn’t resemble her in the slightest, with his dark hair and eyes.

Finally catching up, he raised his brows, feeling a flicker of something he couldn’t quite identify, along with a flash of sympathy for the boy. He guessed the redhead was in her early thirties. While she seemed to be in charge of the situation,

Slater suspected she might be in over her head. Clearly, the kid was a handful.

It was time, Slater decided, still distanced from himself, to speak up.

“I appreciate your bringing it back,” he managed, holding the boy’s gaze but well aware of the woman on the periphery of his vision. “These aren’t cheap.”

Some of the ­f-you drained out of the kid’s expression. “Like I said, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.”

“You made a mistake,” Slater agreed quietly. “We’ve all done things we shouldn’t have, at some point in our lives. But you did what you could to make it right.” He paused. “Life’s all about the choices we make, son. Next time, try to do better.” He felt a grin lurking at one corner of his mouth. “I would’ve been really ticked off if I had to replace this.”

The boy looked confused. “Why? You’re rich.”

Slater had encountered that reasoning before—over the entire course of his life, actually. His family was wealthy, and had been for well over a century. They ran cattle, owned vast stretches of Wyoming grassland and now, thanks to his mother’s roots in the Napa Valley, there was the winery, with acres of vineyards to support the enterprise.

“Beside the point,” Slater said. He worked for a living, and he worked hard, but he felt no particular need to explain that to this kid or anybody else. “What’s your name?”

“Ryder,” the boy answered, after a moment’s hesitation.

“Where do you go to school, Ryder?”

“The same lame place everyone around here goes in the eighth grade. Mustang Creek Middle School.”

Slater lifted one hand. “I can do without the attitude,” he said.

Ryder recovered quickly. “Sorry,” he muttered.

Slater had never been married, but he understood children; he had a daughter, and he’d grown up with two kid brothers, born a year apart and still a riot looking for a place to happen, even in their thirties. He’d broken up more fights than a bouncer at Bad Billie’s Biker Bar and Burger Palace on a Saturday night.

“I went to the same school,” he said, mostly to keep the conversation going. He was in no hurry for the redhead to call it a night, especially since he didn’t know her name yet. “Not a bad deal. Does Mr. Perkins still teach shop?”

Ryder laughed. “Oh, yeah. We call him the The Relic.”

Slater let the remark pass; it was flippant, but not mean-spirited. “You couldn’t meet a nicer guy, though. Right?”

The kid’s expression was suitably sheepish. “True,” he admitted.

The stepmother regarded Slater with some measure of approval, although she still seemed riled.

Slater looked back for the pure pleasure of it. She’d be a whole new experience, this one, and he’d never been afraid of a challenge.

She’d said she was divorced, which raised the question: What damn fool had let her get away?

As if she’d guessed what he was thinking—anybody with her looks had to be used to male attention—the redhead narrowed her eyes. Still, Slater thought he saw a glimmer of amusement in them. She’d calmed down considerably, but she wasn’t missing a trick.

He grinned slightly. “Cuffs?” he inquired mildly, remembering Ryder’s statement a few minutes earlier.

She didn’t smile, but that spark was still in her eyes. “That was a reference to my former career,” she replied, all business. “I’m an ex-cop.” She put out her hand, the motion almost abrupt, and finally introduced herself. “Grace Emery,” she said. “These days I run the Bliss River Resort and Spa.”

“Ah,” Slater said, a propos of nothing in particular. An ex-cop? Hot damn, she could handcuff him anytime. “You must be fairly new around here.” If she hadn’t been, he would’ve made her acquaintance before now, or at least heard about her.
Grace nodded. Full of piss-and-vinegar moments before, she looked tired now, and that did something to Slater, although he couldn’t have said exactly what that something was. “It’s a beautiful place,” she said. “Quite a change from Seattle.” She stopped, looking uncomfortable, maybe thinking she’d said too much.

Slater wanted to ask about the ex-husband, but the time obviously wasn’t right. He waited, sensing that she might say more, despite the misgivings she’d just revealed by clamming up.

Sure enough, she went on. “I’m afraid it’s been quite a change for Ryder, too.” Another pause. “His dad’s military, and he’s overseas. It’s been hard on him—Ryder, I mean.”

Slater sympathized. The kid’s father was out of the country, he’d moved from a big city in one state to a small town in another, and on top of that, he was fourteen, which was rough in and of itself. When Slater was that age, he’d grown eight inches in a single summer and simultaneously developed a consuming interest in girls, without having a clue what to say to them. Oh, yeah.

He remembered awkward.

He realized Grace’s hand was still in his. He let go, albeit reluctantly.

Then, suddenly, he felt as tongue-tied as he ever had at fourteen. “My family’s been on this ranch for generations,” he heard himself say. “So I can’t say I know what it would be like having to start over someplace new.” Shut up, man. He couldn’t seem to follow his own advice. “I travel a lot, and I’m always glad to get back to Mustang Creek.”

Grace turned to Ryder, sighed, then looked back at Slater. “We’ve taken up enough of your time, Mr. Carson.”

Mr. Carson?

“I’ll walk you out,” he said, still flustered and still trying to shake it off. Ordinarily, he was the proverbial man of few words, but tonight, in the presence of this woman, he was a babbling idiot. “This place is like a maze. I took over my father’s office because of the view, but it’s clear at the back of the house and—“

Had the woman asked for any of this information?

No.

What the hell was the matter with him, anyway?

Grace didn’t comment. The boy was already on the move, and she simply followed, which shot holes in Slater’s theory about their ability to find their way to an exit without his guidance. He gave an internal shrug and walked behind Grace, enjoying the gentle sway of her hips.

For some reason he wasn’t a damn bit tired anymore.

 

          Having been a police officer, Grace had plenty of experience dealing with men. In law enforcement, still a male-dominated field even though women were finally making inroads, overexposure to testosterone was inevitable. She’d come to terms with the effect her appearance had on the male gender, not out of vanity, but because she was practical to the bone.
She wouldn’t have described herself as beautiful; she got an instant update on her imperfections every time she consulted a mirror. She knew her mouth was a shade too wide. Her nose tilted up just a little, giving her an air of perkiness that was wholly unfounded, and she couldn’t have gotten a tan in the middle of a desert. Her eyes were an almost startling shade of blue—she’d been accused of wearing colored contacts—and she didn’t even want to discuss the hair. Just call her Carrot-Top.

It was ridiculously curly unless she wore it long, and the stuff could go clown-crazy if the humidity was high. Thankfully, Wyoming was drier than Seattle, so she didn’t have to fight it quite as much now. The color was impossible to change, although she’d tried highlights and different treatments, but nature won out every time, so now she let it go its own way.

Slater Carson hadn’t been turned off.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Grace wasn’t sure how she felt about her own reaction. Yes, she was jaded about men, but something was different this time.

She was—okay, she could admit it—sort of flattered.

Recalling the slow, gliding assessment of those sexy blue eyes as they moved over her, she got a definite buzz. And Slater Carson wasn’t hard to look at, either, with all that dark, wavy hair, a day’s beard growing in and a lean, wiry build that said cowboy. He moved like one, too, with long, slow strides, and when he smiled at her as he held the back door open to a starry Wyoming night, there was an easy curve to his mouth, the hint of a grin, not in the least boyish, but confident, amusing, knowing.

The message had been clear; he wouldn’t mind if they met again.

Well, Grace thought, Mustang Creek was a small town, where everybody seemed to know everybody else, so they were bound to run into each other at some point.

If he expected more than a polite nod and a “howdy,” though, he’d be disappointed.

Grace distrusted men like Slater—too good-looking, too privileged, too used to getting whatever and whoever they wanted.

Yep, the illustrious Mr. Carson reminded her a little too much of her ex-husband, exuding confidence the way he did, certain of his success, of his place in the world.

No, thanks, Grace had been down that road before, and after all the excitement and the heady passion and the dazzle, she’d run smack into a dead end. In some ways, she was still reeling from the impact.

Feeling resolute, she got into her vehicle, which she’d parked in the well-lit driveway alongside the Carson mansion, and slammed her door, waiting for Ryder to stop dawdling and plunk himself down in the passenger seat.

This wasn’t how she’d planned to spend her evening. Her vision had included downloading a movie, munching popcorn, generally vegging out on the couch with her bare feet propped up, wearing shorty pajamas and face cream.

Grace had had a long day at the resort; she’d dealt with a faulty air-conditioning unit and repairmen who couldn’t seem to agree on what was wrong, a chronically late employee who was wonderful when he actually got there, by which time the rest of the staff was thoroughly and justifiably annoyed, plus guest complaints about the lap pool that ranged from too hot to too cool. Among other things.

Coming home to find Ryder about to nail a newly acquired and obviously expensive metal sign to one wall of his bedroom had immediately thrown her evening plans for a loop. Immediately suspicious, Grace had questioned the boy.

Never a good liar, he’d confessed.

Grace had figuratively grabbed the kid by one ear and dragged him to the Carson house.

Now he hauled open the door on his side and got in.

“I’m sorry,” Ryder said. He didn’t really sound sorry, and he didn’t look at her, but sat staring out the windshield instead. His tone was stubborn, and the set of his mouth underscored his attitude.

Grace sighed inwardly.

Ryder was a good kid, and Slater Carson had been right earlier, when he’d said everybody made bad decisions now and then.

“You know better.”

“It just—“

She raised a hand to indicate she wanted him to stop. Now. “There’s no excuse I care to hear. You stole something and we returned it.”

Grace started the car, flipped on the headlights and turned around to head back down the driveway.

Ryder was quiet for a few minutes. They reached the county highway, which was practically deserted at that time of night, and since both the ranch and the resort were well outside town, they didn’t pass many cars.

Eventually, Ryder said, “He liked you.”

Fourteen and he’d picked up on that, Grace reflected with rueful amusement, but he still couldn’t pick up his underwear.

He liked you.

There was liking a woman, and there was wanting to go to bed with her. Grace was not inclined to explain the difference to a fourteen-year-old.

So she said briskly, “He doesn’t know me.”

“He thought you were pretty.”

There were times when she wished Ryder would talk to her more, and times, like now, when she wished he wouldn’t. “I think it’s just possible that he’s prettier than I am.”

That made Ryder crack up. “At least he tried to be subtle. He didn’t, like, stare at your—“

He stopped abruptly, and Grace figured he’d be blushing right about now over what he’d almost said, so she cut the kid a break and kept her gaze on the road. “Mr. Carson was very polite,” she conceded. “How’s the science project coming along?”

Ryder jumped on the sudden change of subject, even if school wasn’t one of his favorites. “Okay, actually. Turns out my partner isn’t as geeky as he looks.” He was quiet for a moment, then he went on. “I was wondering if he might come over to our place and hang out sometime. That okay?”

Grace felt a rush of relief. She’d been waiting for Ryder to stop rebelling against the move to Mustang Creek and make some friends, hoping and praying he would.

She was in over her head with this parenting thing.

And she didn’t seem to be getting any better at it.

A few months back Grace’s former father-in-law had called her one day, out of the blue. Haltingly, he’d explained that with his wife so ill, they couldn’t handle their grandson on their own. They hated to ask, but since Hank was overseas and all, they didn’t have anyone else to turn to.

Hank, Grace’s ex and Ryder’s father, made a career of being unavailable, in her opinion, but of course she didn’t say that.

She’d had no idea what to say, under the circumstances. Ryder’s mother was remarried, with a whole new family, and for reasons Grace still didn’t understand, the woman had never shown much interest in her firstborn, anyway. When she and Hank were divorced, she’d handed Ryder over without a quibble, not even asking for visitation rights.

The woman couldn’t be bothered to send her son a birthday card, never mind calling to see how he was doing or firing off the occasional text to keep in touch.

The whole scenario made Grace furious on Ryder’s behalf, and it didn’t help that Hank was so emotionally distant, absolutely caught up in his military career

In that respect, she and Ryder had been adrift in the same boat, but Grace had had options at least. She could divorce Hank—which she had—and move on. His son didn’t have that choice.

So she’d said yes, Ryder could stay with her until Hank’s current deployment ended, and here they were in Mustang Creek, Wyoming, stuck with each other, both of them struggling to adjust to major changes.

Grace brought herself back to the present “I think it would be great if your friend came over sometime. I could order you guys a pizza, how’s that?”

Ryder nodded. “As long as it isn’t like the ones they have at the spa, with goat cheese and whatever those green things are. I tried to like the stuff, Grace, but no way.”

“Artichoke hearts,” she supplied helpfully. “How about plain old pepperoni?”

Ryder grinned. “That would be great,” he said.

“Okay, you’re on. I just need your word that you’ll stay out of trouble for five minutes.” She feigned a narrow glare. “I didn’t

like facing Mr. Carson with what you’d done any more than you did, buddy.”

Ryder’s grin broadened. “Maybe not,” he agreed, “but I think he sorta enjoyed it.”

Pre-order your copy of ONCE A RANCHER today!

 

The Carsons of Mustang Creek, Book 1
HQN Books  (March 29th, 2016)

ORDER PRINT

ISBN-13: 9780373779680
ISBN-10: 0373779682

You can purchase this book at these online retailers:
Amazon | Amazon Canada | Barnes & Noble
B-A-M | Book Depository | Chapters
IndieBound | Powell’s

You can also ask about it at your local bookstore.

ORDER EBOOK

Kindle | 

The Carsons of Mustang Creek, Book 1
HQN Books  (March 29th, 2016)

ORDER EBOOK

Kindle | 

ORDER PRINT

ISBN-13: 9780373779680
ISBN-10: 0373779682

You can purchase this book at these online retailers:
Amazon | Amazon Canada | Barnes & Noble
B-A-M | Book Depository | Chapters
IndieBound | Powell’s

You can also ask about it at your local bookstore.

To order signed copies of Linda's books, call
Auntie's Bookstore,
Spokane, WA
1-888-802-6657

Cattle drives rarely went more than ten or twelve miles a day, as the cattle had to be given time to rest and graze. A drive from Texas to Montana could take up to five months.

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